At the time, researchers were learning to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species from DNA fragments recovered from fossils. It became possible to identify the genetic differences that distinguished ancient species from their modern cousins and begin to understand how these DNA differences produced differences in their bodies.
Dr Church, who is best known for inventing ways to read and edit DNA, wondered if he could actually revive an extinct species by rewriting the genes of a living parent. Because Asian elephants and mammoths share a common ancestor that lived about six million years ago, Dr. Church thought it would be possible to modify an elephant’s genome to produce something that would look and act like a mammoth.
Beyond scientific curiosity, he argued, rekindled woolly mammoths could help the environment. Today, the tundra of Siberia and North America where animals grazed are heating up rapidly and releasing carbon dioxide. “Mammoths are hypothetically a solution to this,” Dr. Church argued in his speech.
Today, the tundra is dominated by moss. But when woolly mammoths were present, it was largely grassland. Some researchers have argued that woolly mammoths are ecosystem engineers, nurturing grasslands by breaking up moss, chopping down trees, and providing fertilizer with their droppings.
Russian conservationists imported bison and other living species to a reserve in Siberia they dubbed Pleistocene Park, in hopes of giving the tundra back prairies. Dr Church argued that resurrected woolly mammoths would be able to do this more effectively. The restored prairie would prevent the soil from melting and eroding, he argued, and could even trap heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
Dr. Church’s proposal has garnered a lot of press attention, but little funding beyond $ 100,000 from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Dr. Church’s lab focused the gigantic research on other, better-funded experiments. “This set of tools can be used for many purposes, whether it’s de-extinction or re-encoding the human genome,” said Dr Hysolli.
By analyzing the genomes of woolly mammoths collected from fossils, Dr Hysolli and his colleagues have compiled a list of the most important differences between animals and elephants. They focused on 60 genes which, according to their experiences, are important for distinguishing features of mammoths, such as hair, fat and the distinctive domed skull of the woolly mammoth.